K.J. Wright hopes the story of his 2021 foray into free agency ends with him staying in Seattle and remaining with the only team he has known since entering the league in 2011.
But first, he plans to find out what his true market value is, something he has never really done.
Wright has signed two previous deals to stay with Seattle — a four-year extension in December of 2014, and then a two-year contract in 2019. Wright agreed to the latter deal, though, on the day free agency began and following a year when he played just five games due to a knee injury amid some understandable conjecture about where his career was headed.
That deal allowed Wright to achieve a goal of playing 10 years, and at the time, it seemed like it might also allow him to finish out his career with the Seahawks.
But in the two years since Wright has proven not just healthy but also still able to play at an elite level. He has played every game the past two years, on the field for 93% and 86% of snaps, respectively, and in 2020 was judged by Pro Football Focus as the No. 7 graded linebacker in the NFL.
So now, as Wright approaches the chance to enter free agency for just the second time in his career, he seems determined to fully embrace it.
Appearing on the Jim Rome Show on Monday on the CBS Sports Network, Wright said he plans to take the best offer he gets.
“No way, man,” Wright answered to a question of whether he would take a hometown discount. “I do way too much on the football field to take a discount. It makes absolutely no sense.”
Wright is the longest-tenured player on the team, the only player who predates the arrival of Russell Wilson in 2011 and seems assured of someday going in the team’s Ring of Honor.
But like a few other ROH honorees — Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg, Curt Warner, Jacob Green — he may well finish his career elsewhere, even if it’s not what he really wants.
“I mean that would just be a beautiful story if I could just ride it all out with the Seahawks,” Wright said. “That’s some legendary stuff.”
But for both Wright and the Seahawks, business could win out over emotion.
Wright, who turns 32 in July, knows this could be his last chance at a significant NFL payday.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have to grapple with what was already going to be a tight salary-cap situation in the best of times but one that will be even more complicated because the cap is expected to go down in 2021 due to COVID-19-related revenue shortfalls.
The cap in 2020 was $198.2 million. Latest reports are the 2021 cap will likely be in the $182-$183 million range.
As Wright noted on Twitter in response to a comment about his comments to Rome, “It was supposed to be 210.”
The tightened cap has led to speculation that there could be more players cut than usual in the run-up to free agency on March 17 as teams try to get their finances where they need to be. But that, conversely, could lead to a flood of players suddenly available, and a market potentially more friendly for teams than players.
Only 12 players have signed extensions so far throughout the NFL, according to Spotrac.com, but only two for salaries of more than $2.3 million a year.
In other words, teams do appear to be more content than ever to let players get to the market, on the assumption that the market might not bear what players expect, with teams then potentially able to reel in some uncharacteristic bargains.
Wright’s situation, though, has some other variables aside from just his worth, notably the presence of 2020 first-round pick Jordyn Brooks.
It was the drafting of Brooks in April to play the same weakside-linebacker spot Wright has primarily played since 2013 that led to much speculation that Wright might be cut before the 2020 season, especially once it was revealed he’d had offseason shoulder surgery.
But with Wright healthy, he started the season as the team’s weakside linebacker with Brooks in a backup role. Then, when strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin suffered a season-ending knee injury in week two, the Seahawks came up with a plan to get both on the field, moving Wright to the SLB spot in the base defense.
However, the spotlight on that move often obscured that Wright continued to play weakside linebacker in the nickel defense with Brooks going to the sideline in favor of a fifth defensive back.
That meant Brooks played 45% or fewer of the snaps in seven of the 11 games in which he was essentially a full-time player after he recovered from an early season knee injury.
Would the Seahawks want to re-sign Wright to again consign Brooks to being something of a part-time player?
Or, maybe, the Seahawks could view Wright as being similar to Irvin, and able to stay on the field in a rush-end role, with Brooks staying on the field as the WLB. But Wright has never held such a role, and that would also negate to a pretty good extent what was maybe Wright’s best attribute in 2020 — his pass coverage.
PFF rated Wright as the sixth-best coverage linebacker in the NFL last yea — in a stat Wright happily repeated on the Rome show, he was the only player in the league in 2020 with double digits in both tackles for a loss (11) and pass breakups (10).
A one-year deal, of course, might allow the Seahawks to sort of split the difference — keeping Wright while exploring ways to keep both Wright and Brooks on the field as much as possible in 2021, while also then paving the way for Brooks to become a full-timer in the final two years of his rookie deal.
But one year might not be enough to keep Wright.
In fact, he said exactly that during a different interview Tuesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio when he said he is hoping for “a multi-year” contract. Wright said in that same interview that he has had no talks with the Seahawks yet, calling contract discussions to date “non-existent” and that he thinks there might not be any until the free-agent negotiating period begins in mid-March (that comment might also illustrate how teams are going to wait to see where the cap is and how it might impact who is available before doing much negotiating).
For what it’s worth, PFF rated Wright as the No. 67 overall free agent, projecting him to get a two-year deal worth up to $12 million. That’s actually $2 million less than the deal he got from Seattle in 2019.
Wright is likely shooting higher, telling Rome he wants to continue to be able to set up “long, long-term success for my family.”
As noted earlier, Seattle doesn’t have a ton of cap space, listed currently with $4.3 million left for 2021 by OvertheCap.com.
“They know how much I want to be here, but at the end of the day I get it,” Wright said. “I’ve been looking at the salary cap — they’ve got to clear some space to make things happen, so they’ve got to get busy.”
Cap space can be found, of course, but Seattle has lots of business to take care of and something will have to give.
“I know a lot of teams that want my services,” Wright said. “I’m interested to see what that looks like.”
So, too, are Seahawks fans, who might have to accept that Wright could be playing elsewhere in 2021.